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October 21, 2021
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Progression mechanisms: Blessing or curse of modern action-adventure games?

by Pascal Luban on 09/21/21 10:58:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


You have no doubt noticed that almost every action-adventure game that has been released during the last decade offers players progression mechanics heavily inspired by those of RPGs. So is this a good thing or is it a sign that the industry is struggling to renew itself?

Let's quickly review what these mechanisms consist of. In action-adventure games, the players control a character whose abilities will develop as the players advance in the game. This allows them to broaden their range of actions, to access equipment. to perform better and to improve their characters' attributes like strength or health. In short, these progression mechanics enrich the gameplay.

The way this feature works is simple. Players’ actions earn them "resources": Currency, experience points, natural resources, artifacts, etc. These “resources” then make it possible to unlock new equipment, new actions and new game functions. Then, players unlock them in a partially linear fashion.

For us game designers, progression mechanics have been the best idea since the invention of frozen pizza.

They allow the player experience to be renewed throughout the game by gradually unlocking new gameplays. They give us the possibility of offering players medium-term goals and rewards, an important dimension to ensure the player's investment in the long term. They bring choice to players, an excellent practice in game design. They encourage players to explore every square meter of the game.

And that's not all.

They are easy to design and develop. They appeal to editors who see them as a proven good design practice.

« Hey, Pascal, a design mechanism that appeals to everyone, designers, publishers and gamers; Where is the problem ?  »

While this mechanism offers undeniable advantages, it suffers from several flaws:

To begin with, if it's too complex, it makes the game uncomfortable for players.

Then, the stages of progression are largely imposed; players cannot unlock what they want in any order they choose. If they want to access the combo or the equipment of their dreams, they will have to "farm", that is to say, play a lot to amass enough "resources" and unlock the previous stages, a source of frustration for some players.

But its real Achilles heel is that it can be found, without much innovation, in all contemporary action-adventure games. Let us never forget that curiosity and the attraction of novelty are strong motivations for many players.

Can we then consider alternatives? Sure we can. To do this, you have to understand the reasons behind the success of the progression mechanisms and use a little imagination to find new ones. To demonstrate that, I took a few hours to design two of them.

Alternative 1 - The narrative strategy

In this alternative to the traditional progression mechanisms, the evolution of the character controlled by the players is not done through attributes, equipment or capacities (movements, combos, etc.). The character’s abilities stay as they are at the start of the game, as in the real world where our abilities take years to evolve and only do so very modestly. Nevertheless, we must allow the players to make their performance evolve "upwards" and offer them choices as to these evolutions.

Therefore, I propose that, if the character cannot evolve, the players can “progress” in their capacities by selecting teammates, by playing on the complementarity between them, by defining strategies for the distribution of equipment and by developing privileged relations with this or that faction. Thus, the choice of missions, and the behavior of the players during them, will determine which teammates the players meet, how they get along with each other and their level of dedication to the players. It is easy to understand that a mercenary will not behave in the same way as a character who is indebted to the player!

This alternative therefore relies on a particular dimension of the narrative, human relationships. In fact, it approaches the reality which is made of alliances, crushes, inspired leadership but also selfishness and even betrayal.

Alternative 2 - The « all-you-can-eat buffet » strategy

This second alternative follows a very different approach. It is based on the equipment that the character controlled by players can use. It offers players the choice to allocate any equipment found during the game. Players can therefore quickly have a wide choice of weapons, protections, vehicles, and more. Remember that giving players choice is a very good practice in game design.

But, and this is where the new progression mechanism comes in, the performance of players with their equipment depends on the level of their character’s attributes: their strength, endurance, reflexes, etc. In other words, players can assign highly effective armor to a character, but he or she may not have the stamina to wear it without being greatly slowed down. Of course, players can improve the attributes of their characters, but it will take time. Thus we put the players in a position to make interesting choices: They can have fun by allocating equipment that they like but they must constantly weigh the benefits and costs and develop strategies to improve their attributes.

Alternative 3 - It's up to us to invent it

Alternatives 1 and 2 are just simple examples to show that we can develop credible and innovative mechanisms. My goal is to encourage publishers and studios to step outside the comfort zone of traditional mechanics and renew the experience they bring to players.


My previous publications

Ubisoft announces that it will develop free-to-play triple-A games: Has the French publisher gone mad or visionary?  FEATURED POST

Cyberpunk 2077 - Have video games become products like any other? FEATURED POST

UX designer or game designer: Which one do you need?  FEATURED POST


Pascal Luban

Creative director & game designer, freelance

26+ years of experience serving studios and publishers


Picture: Ghost Of Tsushima

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